In his popular and informative book on the history of Tampa, Karl Grismer writes: "Of all the things which Tampa built during the busy 'teens, probably nothing pleased more people than the City's first public library." (Tampa, p. 244). And yet, the drive for a library, begun in 1905 by Miss Louise Frances Dodge, did not bear fruit until more than a decade later. Although the Carnegie Foundation had offered $25,000 in funds for Tampa's first library facility, a movement soon developed against accepting the grant.
Even after the funds were finally accepted via a 1912 referendum, further squabbles developed over the location of the library and the amount to be spent by the City Council to furnish and maintain it. Finally, on Friday, April 27, 1917, the Tampa Public Library opened its doors at 102 E. Seventh Avenue. The collection consisted of 3,800 volumes donated by Mr. & Mrs. L.H. Lothridge. A five-member Library Board was charged with the responsibility of paying bills, purchasing books and hiring a librarian.
During this time, the City of West Tampa, a separate governmental entity, also showed an interest in public library service. Approving and accepting a separate Carnegie proposal in 1913, the West Tampa City Council opened a library at 1718 North Howard Avenue. This facility functioned as an independent public library until West Tampa was absorbed by the City of Tampa. In 1925, the West Tampa Library merged with the Tampa Public Library system which, by then, consisted of four library facilities.
By 1927, yet another branch was added to the system so that the City of Tampa was being served by the following facilities:
- Tampa Public Library
- West Tampa Library
- Hyde Park Branch Library
- Harlem Branch Library
- DeSoto Park Branch Library
- Seminole Branch Library
In spite of its fragmented and difficult beginnings, the Tampa Public Library System continued to expand. Libraries were becoming an integral part of Tampa's culture. Reaching beyond the realm of its physical buildings, Tampa's first Bookcar began serving factories and schools in 1930. For the first time, the library visited its patrons instead of asking patrons to visit its facilities. Tampa's first Bookcar reached out to cigar workers and school children, laborers and the elderly. The word "library" had taken on yet another dimension.
While the City of Tampa grew during these early years of the 20th Century, it soon became clear that areas in unincorporated Hillsborough County were also growing at an exponential rate. In 1929, the Plant City Women's Club felt so strongly about the need for library service that they funded a library of their own. The Port Tampa Women's Club followed suit in 1951 by opening a library at the corner of Westshore and Bayshore Boulevards; and, by 1960, the need for library service had spread to other parts of eastern Hillsborough County. In that year, the Brandon Women's Club opened a library in a clubhouse while the Temple Terrace Women's Club opened their own facility on a golf course. It wasn't long before the Ruskin Women's Club Library became incorporated and extended service to residents of southern Hillsborough County residents. Thanks to the efforts of these dedicated women's groups, libraries were reaching farther and farther into the unincorporated areas of the county. Never again was there a question of whether or not to build a library. The only question now was where to build.
In the years that followed, the demand for library service, which began at the City's epicenter, spread throughout the enormous service area of unincorporated Hillsborough County. In 1961, the City of Tampa and Hillsborough County took an historic step by consolidating their libraries into one system by contract. Through this contract, the Tampa Public Library System, Plant City Public Library and Temple Terrace Public Library agreed to provide free public library service and free use of their library facilities to all residents of Hillsborough County. Federal grant funds in the amount of $35,000 were also used to purchase the first County Bookmobile. These developments were, no doubt, instrumental in qualifying the Tampa Library for a new State Aid to Libraries Program which went into effect in that year. The Tampa Library system received a generous $50,000 grant in FY 62-63 and was able to extend even more service to the ever-expanding populations of both the City and the County. By 1965, three more library stations had been added in Sun City Center (1963), Ruskin (1964) and Lutz (1965). With the completion of a new Main Library in 1965, Tampa was poised for literary success.
As the years passed, small libraries were expanded and replaced by larger ones and the service area of the City-County system continued to grow not only to the east but also to the west, north and south. By 1981, the new Brandon Library was circulating 145,376 volumes while its largest competitor in the City (the Tampa Public Library) was circulating 187,649. The high demand for library services in Tampa's bedroom communities simply could not be ignored.
An even larger step toward a consolidation of service was taken in 1984 when Chapter 84-443, Laws of Florida, created the current Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System. All libraries in Hillsborough County, with the exception of Bruton Memorial (Plant City), Temple Terrace and Sun City, came under the purview of the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners and a 12 member, appointed Library Advisory Board. This law supplanted an earlier Florida law (Chapter 69-1655 Laws of Florida) which created a 7 member Library Board and empowered the City to levy ad valorem taxes for its library. With the passage of State Statute 84-443, a special Library Taxing District was also established for the sole purpose of collecting and allocating funds for a county library system. This statute provides for the future inclusion of the Plant City and Temple Terrace libraries in the THPL system upon majority vote of their governing bodies.
By 1996, the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System had grown to be the 3rd largest system in the State of Florida--the 27th largest system in the nation. Records show that the original West Tampa Library circulated 3,932 volumes in 1916; in 1997, the same branch circulated 24,162 and is part of a system which circulates more than 3.7 million items per year. A library which began in Tampa with the donation of 3800 books, now spends more than $3 million on materials annually, houses a collection of over 2 million items and serves citizens countywide. While the Bruton Memorial (Plant City) and Temple Terrace libraries continue to operate as separate and autonomous agencies, annual interlocal agreements provide for the continued participation of these affiliates in the THPL system in order to provide service to all Hillsborough County residents.
Composed of a Main Library, 19 branches and a Bookmobile, the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library system has plans for further expansion in the coming years. A new regional facility will open in 1999; two other facilities are being undertaken by the Library Board's Planning Committee. Providing library service to residents within a five-mile radius in urban areas and within 15 minutes driving time in rural areas, has become a goal of the library system and Library Advisory Board.
Besides building new facilities, however, THPL has reached out to citizens through a variety of innovative cooperative ventures. Parks, schools, youth organizations and museums have become THPL partners as the library system seeks to offer services to those who would not have them otherwise. Electronic libraries in recreation centers and Boys & Girls Clubs offer access to on-line resources and enable customers to place holds on materials. A fully electronic library in Bealsville gives customers dial-up access to library services in this remote part of eastern Hillsborough County. And, a subject-specific library facility at the Museum of Science and Industry offers specialized materials to those who need to do research in the areas of science, technology and mathematics. To date, partnering possibilities have been limited only by the imagination and funding sources.
From its humble beginnings in 1905 when it was one woman's dream to have a public library in Tampa, library service in Hillsborough County has grown both materially and conceptually. It is no longer limited by the confines of physical buildings but now reaches out to customers through home computers, storefronts, shared facilities, inter-library loan programs and mobile units. Customers with home computers can access the Library's Home Page, on-line catalog and reference materials from their living rooms and citizens in remote areas of the county are provided with at least minimal service.
As we enter a new millennium in the year 2000, public library service in Hillsborough County faces not only new challenges but also new opportunities for growth as the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System attempts to keep pace with a county which continues to develop at a phenomenal rate. As such, it is fulfilling its mission every day to promote "lifelong learning, an informed citizenry, individual intellectual freedom, enhanced quality of life and broadened horizons" for all residents of Hillsborough County.